The Curious Case of 'Empire' and its Representation of Black Life on TV

by Kenya Carlton Exceeding industry expectations with off-the-charts ratings, the television show Empire single-handedly saved Fox Net...


by Kenya Carlton



Exceeding industry expectations with off-the-charts ratings, the television show Empire single-handedly saved Fox Network’s abysmal season. After the cancellation of three highly anticipated fall programs, Fox placed Empire on its spring midseason schedule. The glitzy urban drama not only broke records with its premiere episode, but instead of taking the typical ratings dip between the pilot and subsequent episodes, it soared. Most midseason replacements are lucky to receive a decent number on the Nielsen Ratings, let alone rule the charts.

What is it about this show that keeps viewers tuning in week after week? With major Hollywood hitters backing this sexy hip-hop soap opera, its success is not surprising. Reigning over the show are three veritable Black talents: Academy Award-nominated director Lee Daniels, actress Taraji Henson, and actor Terrence Howard. Regardless of Empire’s obvious domination in its primetime slot, this media darling faces a ton of criticism. Some point out film director and creator Daniels’s focus on character Jamal’s sexuality (he’s a gay man who comes out later in the season), while others castigate the show for seemingly touching on every African American stereotype.

“If you do some research, you might notice some of the same things I’ve seen in this ghetto-fied hood drama: Pimps, hoes, thugs, gangsters, emasculated black men, and all kinds of other stereotypical coonery that many of us have grown tired of seeing portrayed on-screen,” Dr. Boyce Watkins said from an article in AllHipHop.com. Does he have a point, or are we overly sensitive as a race? Are the subjects Empire shoves in African Americans’ faces taboo within our households?

“Basically, Empire wasn’t created to entertain black people (although I’m sure it has black viewers). It is instead selling an image of blackness to a predominantly white audience that has long been fed stereotypical messages about what blackness represents,” Watkins continued.

Considering the high ratings, a lot of people must like what they are seeing: every week more viewers tune in to witness the infighting and sensationalism of the Lyon’s clan. “I became hooked, mainly because of Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson). Also, it addresses real life family and human issues,” explained R.N. MSN Lynda Nicole Garrison, an avid watcher of the program. “There is nothing that I don’t like about the show. It shows some real life issues—being gay and black and the backlash that can occur within a family; mental health; and the complex dynamics that occur within families. All of this is real life placed into theater.”



The unprecedented ratings for Empire reflect that it’s not only black viewers who tune into the hour-long cultural phenomenon every Wednesday. However, I’m not sure white viewers have the same complaints about Empire as some black folks do. Nor do they view predominantly white shows with similar storylines through the same critical lens. For example, HBO hit Game of Thrones features every immoral aspect of society—right down to incest—but our white counterparts rarely deal with this type of reaction.

Do we, as a community, take everything too seriously? Or are we continuing to let coonery represent us?

Curtis Bunn from the Atlanta Black Star believes this type of entertainment is not groundbreaking: “The show does nothing to advance the perception of Blacks or alter how Blacks are viewed by non-Blacks across the world. Every show does not and cannot project the true image of working-class Blacks who are law-abiding, hard-working, and committed to family. That’s a more accurate reality of Black life.”

With the 2014-15 television season, we have three black women at the helm of top-rated television series for the first time. Most would see this achievement as a crack in the glass ceiling of an industry that holds African Americans at arm’s length. After all, the NAACP called for a boycott due to the lack of diversity at the 2015 Oscars. (Of course this is the same organization that protested The Color Purple for its portrayal of black men. Many believe this negative attention caused the popular movie to be locked out for that 1986 award season.)

Is the criticism about this popular African American show valid, or are the detractors jealous of the swift rise of Empire? Will we be able to allow different experiences and portrayals to come across the screen without feeling the need to slap them down?

Religious Educator E.J. Ni’a doesn’t seem to think so: “I believe there is no happy medium. Why? Because we are so fragmented. There is a gulf of deviation within our people that there is no real representation of the African American culture. Representation can range from a hip-hop artist to a brain surgeon. We do believe, however, that African American movies have a responsibility to show all images… There is more to African Americans than gang-bangers.”

These critiques are valid. Nevertheless, we must also ask ourselves, “Would we still watch if Empire wasn’t a glitzy urban drama and Cookie wasn’t one bad mama-jama?”

Probably not. 

Photo: Fox

Kenya Carlton is a guest contributor to For Harriet.



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